Movie formulas come and go, falling into and out of favor with the passing seasons, but a few are hardy perennials that can always be counted on. One of the most reliable of these imperishable formulas is the story of a boy and his dog. The latest incarnation of this familiar storyline to sit up and beg for your box office dollars is "My Dog Skip." If the story of Skip and his human pal, Willie, left you wanting more stories of canine companionship, be assured that there are plenty of them waiting for you down at the corner video store. Here are a few titles to look for.
"Lassie Come Home" (1943). A youngster named Roddy McDowall had already proved that he could successfully share the screen with a four-legged co-star with his performance as a young equestrian in "My Friend Flicka" (1943). In this film his animal companion was a bright and loyal collie named "Lassie." When the boy's destitute parents raise a little money by selling Lassie to the local gentry, a duke played by Nigel Bruce, the lad is heartbroken. As it turns out, so is Lassie. With the assistance of the duke's granddaughter, a very young Elizabeth Taylor, Lassie escapes from the aristocrat's kennel and makes her way back to the boy she loves. Lassie was embraced by audiences as few canine stars ever have been. Ultimately she would become a cultural icon, the Elvis of the canine world. But because she was always played by a male dog, no one ever used the b-word to describe Lassie, which is something that cannot be said of all her co-stars.
"Old Yeller" (1957). Needless to say, when you're talking about movies featuring kids and animals, you're in Disney territory. Although he produced many such films, most viewers agree that Uncle Walt's most enduring classic about a boy and his dog is this sentimental favorite. Even male moviegoers who mercilessly ridicule weepy "chick's movies" will freely admit to shedding a tear at the sad demise of the title character.
"Big Red" (1962). "Old Yeller" was followed by a sequel called "Savage Sam" (1963), but its tone was strikingly different, skewing more toward action-adventure rather than recreating the warmth of its predecessor. A more fitting successor was "Big Red," also from Disney, in which an orphan boy and an Irish setter become fast friends. Red is the property of James Haggin (Walter Pidgeon), who has raised him to be a champion show dog. Despite his good breeding, however, Red proves difficult to train. Rene (Gilles Payant), a youngster who works in Haggin's kennel, bonds instantly with Red. Realizing that Red will be no good to him if he will only respond to Rene, Haggin orders them to be kept separate, setting in motion a chain of events that will threaten Red's life.
"Benji" (1974). The canine phenomenon of the seventies, hands down, was an irresistible little mutt named Benji. Found at the Burbank Animal Shelter by animal trainer Frank Inn, Benji's star quality earned him center stage in this film by writer-director Joe Camp. His heroic efforts in the film to rescue two kidnapped children won the hearts of audiences everywhere, and a star was born. His subsequent appearances in sequels and other vehicles never quite equaled the success of this debut performance, however.
"Where the Red Fern Grows" (1974). The novel by Wilson Rawls on which this film is based is such a beloved classic that there was little hope of fully satisfying its many fans. Still, screenwriters Douglas Day Stewart and Eleanor Lamb and director Norman Tokar, who also directed "Big Red," did a creditable job of rendering the sentimental tale for the screen. It is the story of a country boy named Billy (Stewart Peterson) who saves his money for two years to buy himself a couple of dogs for raccoon hunting. The two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, become top hunting dogs in time, but more importantly they become Billy's best friends, teaching him much about life. Although some of the lessons are painful, the bittersweet ending offers hope.Let's not forget, by the way, that it isn't only children whose lives are touched by faithful dogs in the movies. Next week we'll look at some films in which people of all ages learn the value of canine friendship.